The Hawaiian Archipelago, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter XXI.

Makaueli, Kauai.

After my letters from Hawaii, and their narratives of volcanoes, freshets, and out of the world valleys, you will think my present letters dull, so I must begin this one pleasantly, by telling you that though I have no stirring adventures to relate, I am enjoying myself and improving again in health, and that the people are hospitable, genial, and cultivated, and that Kauai, though altogether different from Hawaii, has an extreme beauty altogether its own, which wins one’s love, though it does not startle one into admiration like that of the Hawaiian gulches. Is it because that, though the magic of novelty is over it, there is a perpetual undercurrent of home resemblance? The dash of its musical waters might be in Cumberland; its swelling uplands, with their clumps of trees, might be in Kent; and then again, steep, broken, wooded ridges, with glades of grass, suggest the Val Moutiers; and broader sweeps of mountain outline, the finest scenery of the Alleghanies.

But yet the very things which have a certain tenderness of familiarity, are in a foreign setting. The great expanse of restful sea, so faintly blue all day, and so faintly red in the late afternoon, is like no other ocean in its unutterable peace; and this joyous, riotous trade-wind, which rustles the trees all day, and falls asleep at night, and cools the air, seems to come from some widely different laboratory than that in which our vicious east winds, and damp west winds, and piercing north winds, and suffocating south winds are concocted. Here one cannot ride “into the teeth of a north-easter,” for such the trade-wind really is, without feeling at once invigorated, and wrapped in an atmosphere of balm. It is not here so tropical looking as in Hawaii, and though there are not the frightful volcanic wildernesses which make a thirsty solitude in the centre of that island, neither are there those bursts of tropical luxuriance which make every gulch an epitome of Paradise: I really cannot define the difference, for here, as there, palms glass themselves in still waters, bananas flourish, and the forests are green with ferns.

We took three days for our journey of twenty-three miles from Koloa, the we, consisting of Mrs. —-, the widow of an early missionary teacher, venerable in years and character, a native boy of ten years old, her squire, a second Kaluna, without Kaluna’s good qualities, and myself. Mrs. —— is not a bold horsewoman, and preferred to keep to a foot’s pace, which fretted my ambitious animal, whose innocent antics alarmed her in turn. We only rode seven miles the first day, through a park-like region, very like Western Wisconsin, and just like what I expected and failed to find in New Zealand. Grass-land much tumbled about, the turf very fine and green, dotted over with clumps and single trees, with picturesque, rocky hills, deeply cleft by water-courses were on our right, and on our left the green slopes blended with the flushed, stony soil near the sea, on which indigo and various compositae are the chief vegetation. It was hot, but among the hills on our right, cool clouds were coming down in frequent showers, and the white foam of cascades gleamed among the ohias, whose dark foliage at a distance has almost the look of pine woods.

Our first halting place was one of the prettiest places I ever saw, a buff frame-house, with a deep verandah festooned with passion flowers, two or three guest houses also bright with trailers, scattered about under the trees near it, a pretty garden, a background of grey rocky hills cool with woods and ravines, and over all the vicinity, that air of exquisite trimness which is artificially produced in England, but is natural here.

Kaluna the Second soon showed symptoms of being troublesome. The native servants were away, and he was dull, and for that I pitied him. He asked leave to go back to Koloa for a “sleeping tapa,” which was refused, and either out of spite or carelessness, instead of fastening the horses into the pasture, he let them go, and the following morning when we were ready for our journey they were lost. Then he borrowed a horse, and late in the afternoon returned with the four animals, who were all white with foam and dust, and this escapade detained us another night. Subsequently, after disobeying orders, he lost his horse, which was a borrowed one, deserted his mistress, and absconded!

The slopes over which we travelled were red, hot, and stony, cleft in one place however, by a green, fertile valley, full of rice and kalo patches, and native houses, with a broad river, the Hanapepe, flowing quietly down the middle, which we forded near the sea, where it was half-way up my horse’s sides. After plodding all day over stony soil in the changeless sunshine, as the shadows lengthened, we turned directly up towards the mountains and began a two hours ascent. It was delicious. They were so cool, so green, so varied, their grey pinnacles so splintered, their precipices so abrupt, their ravines so dark and deep, and their lower slopes covered with the greenest and finest grass; then dark ohias rose singly, then in twos and threes, and finally mixed in dense forest masses, with the pea-green of the kukui.

It became yet lovelier as the track wound through deep wooded ravines, or snaked along the narrow tops of spine-like ridges; the air became cooler, damper, and more like elixir, till at a height of 1500 feet we came upon Makaueli, ideally situated upon an unequalled natural plateau, a house of patriarchal size for the islands, with a verandah festooned with roses, fuchsias, the water lemon, and other passion flowers, and with a large guest-house attached. It stands on a natural lawn, with abrupt slopes, sprinkled with orange trees burdened with fruit, ohias, and hibiscus. From the back verandah the forest-covered mountains rise, and in front a deep ravine widens to the grassy slopes below and the lonely Pacific — as I write, a golden sea, on which the island of Niihau, eighteen miles distant, floats like an amethyst.

The solitude is perfect. Except the “quarters” at the back, I think there is not a house, native or foreign, within six miles, though there are several hundred natives on the property. Birds sing in the morning, and the trees rustle throughout the day; but in the cool evenings the air is perfectly still, and the trickle of a stream is the only sound.

The house has the striking novelty of a chimney, and there is a fire all day long in the dining-room.

I must now say a little about my hosts and try to give you some idea of them. I heard their history from Mr. Damon, and thought it too strange to be altogether true until it was confirmed by themselves.29 The venerable lady at the head of the house emigrated from Scotland to New Zealand many years ago, where her husband was unfortunately drowned, and she being left to bring up a large family, and manage a large property, was equally successful with both. Her great ambition was to keep her family together, something on the old patriarchal system; and when her children grew up, and it seemed as if even their very extensive New Zealand property was not large enough for them, she sold it, and embarking her family and moveable possessions on board a clipper-ship, owned and commanded by one of her sons-inlaw, they sailed through the Pacific in search of a home where they could remain together.

They were strongly tempted by Tahiti, but some reasons having decided them against it, they sailed northwards and put into Honolulu. Mr. Damon, who was seaman’s chaplain, on going down to the wharf one day, was surprised to find their trim barque, with this immense family party on board, with a beautiful and brilliant old lady at its head, books, pictures, work, and all that could add refinement to a floating home, about them, and cattle and sheep of valuable breeds in pens on deck. They then sailed for British Columbia, but were much disappointed with it, and in three months they re-appeared at Honolulu, much at a loss regarding their future prospects.

The island of Niihau was then for sale, and in a very short time they purchased it of Kamehameha V. for a ridiculously low price, and taking their wooden houses with them, established themselves for seven years. It is truly isolated, both by a heavy surf and a disagreeable sea-passage, and they afterwards bought this beautiful and extensive property, made a road, and built the house. Only the second son and his wife live now on Niihau, where they are the only white residents among 350 natives. It has an area of 70,000 acres, and could sustain a far larger number of sheep than the 20,000 now upon it. It is said that the transfer of the island involved some hardships, owing to a number of the natives having neglected to legalise their claims to their kuleanas, but the present possessors have made themselves thoroughly acquainted with the language, and take the warmest interest in the island population. Niihau is famous for its very fine mats, and for necklaces of shells six yards long, as well as for the extreme beauty and variety of the shells which are found there.

The household here consists first and foremost of its head, Mrs. —-, a lady of the old Scotch type, very talented, bright, humorous, charming, with a definite character which impresses its force upon everybody; beautiful in her old age, disdaining that servile conformity to prevailing fashion which makes many old people at once ugly and contemptible: speaking English with a slight, old-fashioned, refined Scotch accent, which gives naivete to everything she says, up to the latest novelty in theology and politics: devoted to her children and grandchildren, the life of the family, and though upwards of seventy, the first to rise, and the last to retire in the house. She was away when I came, but some days afterwards rode up on horseback, in a large drawn silk bonnet, which she rarely lays aside, as light in her figure and step as a young girl, looking as if she had walked out of an old picture, or one of Dean Ramsay’s books.

Then there are her eldest son, a bachelor, two widowed daughters with six children between them, three of whom are grown up young men, and a tutor, a young Prussian officer, who was on Maximilian’s staff up to the time of the Queretaro disaster, and is still suffering from Mexican barbarities. The remaining daughter is married to a Norwegian gentleman, who owns and resides on the next property. So the family is together, and the property is large enough to give scope to the grandchildren as they require it.

They are thoroughly Hawaiianised. The young people all speak Hawaiian as easily as English, and the three young men, who are superb young fellows, about six feet high, not only emulate the natives in feats of horsemanship, such as throwing the lasso, and picking up a coin while going at full gallop, but are surf-board riders, an art which it has been said to be impossible for foreigners to acquire.

The natives on Niihau and in this part of Kauai, call Mrs. —- “Mama.” Their rent seems to consist in giving one or more days’ service in a month, so it is a revival of the old feudality. In order to patronise native labour, my hosts dispense with a Chinese, and employ a native cook, and native women come in and profess to do some of the housework, but it is a very troublesome arrangement, and ends in the ladies doing all the finer cooking, and superintending the coarser, setting the table, trimming the lamps, cutting out and “fixing” all the needlework, besides planning the indoor and outdoor work which the natives are supposed to do. Having related their proficiency in domestic duties, I must add that they are splendid horsewomen, one of them an excellent shot, and the other has enough practical knowledge of seamanship, as well as navigation, to enable her to take a ship round the world! It is a busy life, owing to the large number of natives daily employed, and the necessity of looking after the native lunas, or overseers. Dr. Smith at Koloa, twenty-two miles off, is the only doctor on the island, and the natives resort to this house in great numbers for advice and medicine in their many ailments. It is much such a life as people lead at Raasay, Applecross, or some other remote Highland place, only that people who come to visit here, unless they ride twenty-two miles, must come to the coast in the Jenny instead of being conveyed by one of David Hutcheson’s luxurious steamers. If the Clansman were “put on,” probably the great house would not contain the strangers who would arrive!

We were sitting in the library one morning when Mr. M., of Timaru, N.Z., rode up with an introduction, and was of course cordially welcomed. He goes on to England, where you will doubtless cross-question him concerning my statements. During his visit a large party of us made a delightful expedition to the Hanapepe Falls, one of the “lions” of Kauai. It is often considered too “rough” for ladies, and when Mrs. —— and I said we were going, I saw Mr. M. look as if he thought we should be a dependent nuisance; I was amused afterwards with his surprise at Mrs. —-‘s courageous horsemanship, and at his obvious confusion as to whether he should help us, which question he wisely decided in the negative.

If “happiness is atmosphere,” we were surely happy. The day was brilliant, and as cool as early June at home, but the sweet, joyous trade-wind could not be brewed elsewhere than on the Pacific. The scenery was glorious, and mountains, trees, frolicsome water, and scarlet birds, all rioted as if in conscious happiness. Existence was a luxury, and reckless riding a mere outcome of the animal spirits of horses and riders, and the thud of the shoeless feet as the horses galloped over the soft grass was sweeter than music. I could hardly hold my horse at all, and down hills as steep as the east side of Arthur’s Seat, over knife-like ridges too narrow for two to ride abreast, and along side-tracks only a foot wide, we rode at full gallop, till we pulled up at the top of a descent of 2,000 feet with a broad, rapid river at its feet, emerging from between colossal walls of rock to girdle a natural lawn of the bright manienie grass. There had been a “drive” of horses, and numbers of these, with their picturesque saddles, were picketed there, while their yet more picturesque, scarlet-shirted riders lounged in the sun.

It was a difficult two hours’ ride from thence to the Falls, worthy of Hawaii, and since my adventures in the Hilo gulches I cannot cross running water without feeling an amount of nervousness which I can conceal, but cannot reason myself out of. In going and returning, we forded the broad, rugged river twenty-six times, always in water up to my horse’s girths, and the bottom was so rocky and full of holes, and the torrent so impetuous, that the animals floundered badly and evidently disliked the whole affair. Once it had been possible to ride along the edge, but the river had torn away what there was of margin in a freshet, so that we had to cross perpetually, to attain the rough, boulder-strewn strips which lay between the cliffs and itself. Sometimes we rode over roundish boulders like those on the top of Ben Cruachan, or like those of the landing at Iona, and most of those under the rush of the bright foaming water were covered with a silky green weed, on which the horses slipped alarmingly. My companions always took the lead, and by the time that each of their horses had struggled, slipped, and floundered in and out of holes, and breasted and leapt up steep banks, I was ready to echo Mr. M.‘s exclamation regarding Mrs. —-, “I never saw such riding; I never saw ladies with such nerve.” I certainly never saw people encounter such difficulties for the sake of scenery. Generally, a fall would be regarded as practically inaccessible which could only be approached in such a way.

I will not inflict another description of similar scenery upon you, but this, though perhaps exceeding all others in beauty, is not only a type, perhaps the finest type, of a species of canon very common on these islands, but is also so interesting geologically that you must tolerate a very few words upon it.

The valley for two or three miles from the sea is nearly level, very fertile, and walled in by palis 250 feet high, much grooved vertically, and presenting fine layers of conglomerate and grey basalt; and the Hanapepe winds quietly through the region which it fertilises, a stream several hundred feet wide, with a soft, smooth bottom. But four miles inland the bed becomes rugged and declivitous, and the mountain walls close in, forming a most magnificent canon from 1,000 to 2,500 feet deep. Other canons of nearly equal beauty descend to swell the Hanapepe with their clear, cool, tributaries, and there are “meetings of the waters” worthier of verse than those of Avoca. The walls are broken and highly fantastic, narrowing here, receding there, their strangely-arched recesses festooned with the feathery trichomanes, their clustering columns and broken buttresses suggesting some old-world minster, and their stately tiers of columnar basalt rising one above another in barren grey into the far-off blue sky. The river in carving out the gorge so grandly has most energetically removed all rubbish, and even the tributaries of the lateral canons do not accumulate any “wash” in the main bed. The walls as a rule rise clear from the stream, which, besides its lateral tributaries, receives other contributions in the form of waterfalls, which hurl themselves into it from the cliffs in one leap.

After ascending it for four miles all further progress was barred by a pali which curves round from the right, and closes the chasm with a perpendicular wall, over which the Hanapepe precipitates itself from a height of 326 feet, forming the Koula Falls. At the summit is a very fine entablature of curved columnar basalt, resembling the clam shell cave at Staffa, and two high, sharp, and impending peaks on the other side form a stately gateway for a stream which enters from another and broader valley; but it is but one among many small cascades, which round the arc of the falls flash out in foam among the dark foliage, and contribute their tiny warble to the diapason of the waterfall. It rewards one well for penetrating the deep gash which has been made into the earth. It seemed so very far away from all buzzing, frivolous, or vexing things, in the cool, dark abyss into which only the noon-day sun penetrates. All beautiful things which love damp; all exquisite, tender ferns and mosses; all shade-loving parasites flourish there in perennial beauty. And high above in the sunshine, the pea-green candle-nut struggles with the dark ohia for precarious roothold on rocky ledges, and dense masses of Eugenia, aflame with crimson flowers, and bananas, and all the leafy wealth born of heat and damp fill up the clefts which fissure the pali. Every now and then some scarlet tropic bird flashed across the shadow, but it was a very lifeless and a very silent scene. The arches, buttresses, and columns suggest a temple, and the deep tone of the fall is as organ music. It is all beauty, solemnity, and worship.

It was sad to leave it and to think how very few eyes can ever feast themselves on its beauty. We came back again into gladness and sunshine, and to the vulgar necessity of eating, which the natives ministered to by presenting us with a substantial meal of stewed fowls and sweet potatoes at the nearest shanty. There must have been something intoxicating in the air, for we rode wildly and recklessly, galloping down steep hills (which on principle I object to), and putting our horses to their utmost speed. Mine ran off with me several times, and once nearly upset Mr. M.‘s horse, as he probably will tell you.

The natives annoy me everywhere by their inhumanity to their horses. To-day I became an object of derision to them for hunting for sow-thistles, and bringing back a large bundle of them to my excellent animal. They starve their horses from mere carelessness or laziness, spur them mercilessly, when the jaded, famished things almost drop from exhaustion, ride them with great sores under the saddles, and with their bodies deeply cut with the rough girths; and though horses are not regarded as more essential in any part of the world, they neglect and maltreat them in every way, and laugh scornfully if one shows any consideration for them. Except for short shopping distances in Honolulu, I have never seen a native man or woman walking. They think walking a degradation, and I have seen men take the trouble to mount horses to go 100 yards.

I have no time to tell you of a three days’ expedition which five of us made into the heart of the nearer mountainous district, attended by some mounted natives. Mr. K., from whose house we started, has the finest mango grove on the islands. It is a fine foliaged tree, but is everywhere covered with a black blight, which gives the groves the appearance of being in mourning, as the tough, glutinous film covers all the older leaves. The mango is an exotic fruit, and people think a great deal of it, and send boxes of mangoes as presents to their friends. It is yellow, with a reddish bloom, something like a magnum bonum plum, three times magnified. The only way of eating it in comfort is to have a tub of water beside you. It should be eaten in private by any one who wants to retain the admiration of his friends. It has an immense stone, and a disproportionately small pulp. I think it tastes strongly of turpentine at first, but this is a heresy.

Beyond Waielva and its mango groves there is a very curious sand bank about 60 feet high, formed by wind and currents, and of a steep, uniform angle from top to bottom. It is very coarse sand, composed of shells, coral, and lava. When two handfuls are slapped together, a sound like the barking of a dog ensues, hence its name, the Barking Sands. It is a common amusement with strangers to slide their horses down the steep incline, which produces a sound like subterranean thunder, which terrifies unaccustomed animals. Besides this phenomenon, the mirage is often seen on the dry, hot soil, and so perfectly, too, that strangers have been known to attempt to ride round the large lake which they saw before them.

Pleasant as our mountain trip was, both in itself, and as a specimen of the way in which foreigners recreate themselves on the islands, I was glad to get back to the broad Waimea, on which long shadows of palms reposed themselves in the slant sunshine, and in the short red twilight to arrive at this breezy height, and be welcomed by a blazing fire.

Mrs. —-, in speaking of the mode of living here, was telling me that on a recent visit to England she felt depressed the whole time by what appeared to her “the scarcity” in the country. I never knew the meaning of the Old Testament blessing of “plenty” and “bread to the full” till I was in abundant Victoria, and it is much the same here. At home we know nothing of this, which was one of the chiefest of the blessings promised in the Old Testament. Its GENIALISING effect is very obvious. A man feels more practically independent, I think, when he can say to all his friends, “Drop in to dinner whenever you like,” than if he possessed the franchise six times over; and people can indulge in hospitality and exercise the franchise, too, here, for meat is only twopence a pound, and bananas can be got for the gathering. The ever-increasing cost of food with us makes free-hearted hospitality an impossibility, and withers up all those kindly instincts which find expression in housing and feeding both friends and strangers.

I.L.B.

29 These circumstances are well-known throughout the islands, and with the omission of some personal details, there is nothing which may not be known by a larger public.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:41